By Melissa J. Anderson

Yesterday’s 2012 Catalyst Awards Conference was a celebration of landmark achievements. As Catalyst celebrated its 50th anniversary, the organization awarded its annual prize for diversity initiatives to two organizations: the food and facilities management services company Sodexo and Commonwealth Bank, Australia’s leading financial services company.

The two programs represented breakthroughs in diversity. Sodexo’s ROI driven diversity program has increased its number of women in leadership by 74%. Commonwealth has set the tone for diversity in Australia by being the first bank in the country to set targets for attracting, retaining, and promoting senior women.

Both winning programs were awarded after a rigorous review by Catalyst. Julie S. Nugent, Catalyst’s Senior Director of Research and Chair of the Catalyst Award Evaluation Committee, remarked that the process “has been described as more intense than an IRS audit.” The organization works to ensure that diversity and inclusion is really lived in the culture of the company as well as in the impact data resulting from each initiative.

Leadership and Culture

What became clear throughout the event was the importance of leadership – how a dedicated and vocal commitment to diversity from the top can truly shape a company’s culture of inclusion.

Speaking at the event, Commonwealth Bank Managing Director and CEO Ian Narev explained that authenticity is critical for ensuring the success of a diversity initiative. “In large organizations, everyone can see through inauthenticity,” he said. “You are far more transparent than you think you might be.”

The son of Holocaust survivors, he explained that his belief in diversity was based on his own personal morality. He continued, “When you are running a business, morality is important, but you’ve also got to link it to the business value.”

He said that Commonwealth had been successful in its program because of its focus on the business value of diversity. Creating an inclusive environment has enabled the Bank to be sure it is hiring the best people for each job – rather than overlooking female, indigenous, or another underrepresented sources of talent.

George Chavel, President and Chief Executive Officer of Sodexo North America, held a similar view on corporate diversity. He explained that, having grown up in a multicultural community in Detroit, he saw the importance of diversity from an early age, which shaped his passion for building an inclusive environment at Sodexo. But what enables that environment to thrive and generate buy-in with other stakeholders in the company is to also communicate the business case.

Additionally, he said Sodexo works to communicate with clients about diversity and inclusion, because it sets the company apart from competitors. “Now part of our brand promise is diverse leadership. In our commoditized business, a low margin business, you need that differentiation.”

Chavel also discussed how he sees the relationship between diversity and inclusion. “Inclusion creates the landscape for [building] diversity,” he said. By creating an inclusive, even playing field, diversity can truly thrive within the company.

Expanding the Conversation

Rohini Anand, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer at Sodexo, discussed the importance of sharing personal stories to illustrate the value of diversity and inclusion in a powerful way. She explained, “Getting it personal and being authentic is absolutely critical. We’ve had three CEOs [since beginning D&I work] and each as demonstrated a personal connection and commitment. But we had to align the executive team behind the CEO.”

That required a program based on metrics and a specific action plan, she explained. “The shift came for us when we were able to demonstrate the business benefits… that it was a vehicle for us to hire the best talent.”

It also requires generating buy-in with staff in the majority – usually white males, explained Tristan Wills, Executive General Manager, Corporate Sustainability, Commonwealth Bank of Australia. “For us, we’re very, very careful that we’re not just women talking about women to women,” she said.

“This is a leadership issue – and all of our programs are available to men and women.”

She said that unconscious bias training had made a big difference in the attitudes and behaviors of many individuals. “We also make sure we have equal representation of men and women at our events so the conversation reaches everyone.”